Kids in The Bar

Oh the joys of the Youth crime problem again. Yes, day in day out, the more victimised worry that their lives will be destroyed by marauding teens, and yes, for some it is a reality. What can we do? It’s clear nothing works…

But recently, some one has come up with a novel idea, that may have an impact, in my mind…

In March 2007 Nacro announced Home Office Funding had been agreed for a project that, in the UK, could be argued as a pioneering Restorative Justice based tool for dealing with Young Offenders. Youth Juries, where the legal process that would normally be carried out in courts is undertaken by a peer group panel of young people are in existence around the world in various forms, and this is a pilot scheme in the UK/

Basically, the idea is that children will be tried by other children.

OK, some might have reservations, as will be seen below, but lets have a think folks. Based on the premise that many of us can remeber our youth, (at least I hope so), would not a little more understanding and right to manage your own social situations have gone a long way…

Rather than welcome this as an innovative idea which may provide results, many media reports have, in a clear example of “tell[ing] us what to think about crime” (Howitt 1998 p.28) presented mainly negative opinion and analysis or even debased the idea as a “crackpot initiative”. The Opposition of course are having a field day (because of course, despite the current governments lamentable failure to solve the paranoia about youth crime, they will click their fingers and do so), and of course the Magistrates’ Association have come out in a fit of professional jealousy…

But lets have a look at the comments from James Reed from the Yorkshire post, criminological mind extraordinaire…

Reed opens his account referring to schemes whereby schoolchildren are involved in the recruitment and selection of their teachers, making his viewpoint clear in the first sentence that the notion that children know best is “flawed”. He allows only two sentences to a description of the Youth Jury scheme and his interpretation of the ethos behind it – with noticeably no reference or link to the news article provoking his commentary. He highlights the cost of the scheme and then offers the inflammatory remark that if there is any validity in the concept of peer involvement in assessing how crimes of young people should be addressed:

“…then it would surely apply to all criminals if taken to its logical conclusion. Perhaps murderers, rapists and sex offenders will only be sentenced by people of a similar age and background in the future to ensure that the criminal justice system “understands” them.”

Well… Fair play to the man, he has my appreciation of vitriol. But honestly… The man’s “logic” is a little odd if you ask me. But then, of course he knows far better than those who might think that involving an (albeit hopefully “rehabilitated”) offender in a process of trying to help others may just have its value…?

Debasing the idea of Youth Juries as a “gimmick” Reed states that this is an attack on the responsibility adults hold for children, and that children are not the homogeneous group, “beyond the understanding of others” that this scheme affords them to be. This appears to be in contradiction to his preceding comment that “justice should be applied blindly and objectively”, which would only be valid if the group to which justice was applied was in fact homogeneous. Don’t you love it when people contradict themselves.

Reed shows concern is that it will apparently only be only children from “stable” backgrounds that will sit on these panels, though this contradicts information from other reports which indicate that panel members will be drawn, in part, from youth inclusion programmes. He also seems to be self-contradicting here. He claims it to be unlikely that young offenders will react to the opinion of children from a different social background, yet he states clearly later in his analysis that:

“a common feature of children drawn into a life of crime or anti-social behaviour is their falling under the malign influence of young people already leading that lifestyle”.

So children will react to the influence of bad children. But not perhaps to good children…?

This, it seems, is a major issue. Reed states his opinion that this will send the message that “children know best” thus downgrading the judgement of adults at a time that the need for family values is stressed. He seems to be a little confused about his viewpoint on the family too, as he comments to the effect that the “guidance” of adults acting as magistrates is paramount. Bearing in mind that valid concern may be expressed about State interference in family life through mechanisms such as Parenting Orders, brought in via the Crime and Disorder Act 2003 it is difficult to see how this opinion can be justified. Reed appears to express concern about attacks on adults’ responsibilities, yet also raises questions about parents’ abilities, which could take that responsibility from of the families he is concerned about. So families are also rubbish. Well, plenty are, but is the state any better…?

Reed here is stuck in the so called Dominant Framework of Childhood. This framework is characterised by four main themes: the binary division of adulthood and childhood, children’s lack of ontology, their status as proto-individuals, and the involvement of the state in their needs. Children are seen as human becomings not human beings, who require continual adult involvement (Wyness 2006). It is clear how the idea of youth juries challenge this viewpoint. Despite recent research which indicates that children, particularly boys, (who are overrepresented in the Youth Justice System) possess active involvement in informally policing their own activities (Frosh et. al. 2002 in: Featherstone 2004: 171) and the increasing understanding that they are developed social actors in their own right (Wyness 2006) the idea that children may be able to provide a rational and considered input into management of young offenders does not sit easily with their structural status as undeveloped inferiors.

This is clear in Reed’s suggestion of the need for involvement of magistrates, and in the viewpoints expressed by The Magistrates Association that “Children do not have the balance or maturity to make a judicial decision” (John Fassenfelt). This is something that (as that “one cool lesbian” according to Mij, Gill Valentine (1996) points out) adults and children will probably be in disagreement about, but a key point that must be made here concerns interpretations of children’s ability to determine right from wrong. Reed appears incredulous that children of the age of ten should be involved in peer panels. The Daily Mail makes the point that these children are only just above the age of criminal responsibility themselves, as if this is something intrinsically problematic.

Whether or not the opinion that children do not have the required maturity to take an active and productive involvement in the youth justice system is accurate is something that can only be assessed in time, when evidence based evaluations of the scheme have been produced. There is, however, a certain dichotomy of values regarding the age of children involved. The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is one of the lowest in Europe particularly since the revocation by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 of the presumption of doli Incapax, which provided some protection for offenders under the age of 14, by requiring the prosecution to show that the child knew their actions were seriously wrong. It is argued that this age should be raised, and that in a league table of child well being the UK would not fare well. Full evaluation of this is beyond the scope of this discussion, but the point remains that children of ten are not seen by the critics of Peer Panels to have sufficient maturity to be involved in the management of crime yet these commentators appear to accept the State’s interpretation that ten is sufficient age to hold criminal responsibility.

It is of course equally valid to make the point that if one is to argue that the age of criminal responsibility is too low, one must accept the counter argument that their maturity may indeed not be sufficient for the purposes of this project, and it seems likely that there is no absolute in either case. However Reed’s assertion that in terms of social status children are not a homogeneous group does not sit well with his apparent belief that they can neatly be fitted into contrasting binaries of sufficient or insufficient maturity. It does not seem unreasonable that if children over the age of ten can be held accountable for criminal actions, one cannot argue that the are not mature enough to be involved in a project such as this.

It is difficult to ascertain whether it is this seemingly knee jerk reaction to the idea of allowing children some influence in their own affairs that leads to Reed’s misinterpretation, or lack of appreciation of the wider possibilities of this scheme, but there are certainly potential positive effects ignores. Interleaved with his apparent concern with the problematic idea of children’s involvement in dealing with other young offenders, Reed does make some important points regarding the current state of the criminal justice system: he addresses the valid concern that the rate of incarceration of young people, relative to population, in England and Wales is very high and that the effect this has had on reducing youth crime is minor. Reed discusses the concept of Restorative Justice, from which the idea of youth juries is derived, believing that this “should be given a chance”. What is problematic are erroneous beliefs about the nature of Restorative Justice that form a part of his position.

A definition of Restorative Justice can be given as:

“…a problem solving approach to crime which involves the parties themselves, and the community generally, in an active relationship with statutory agencies.

It is not any particular practice but a set of principles which may orientate the general practice of any agency or group in relation to crime.” (Marshall 1988)

There are, of course, other definitions that can be applied, and further discussion about what in fact Restorative Justice does entail, but the definition given above is one that is inclusive of the idea of youth juries, and can highlight problems with Reed’s interpretation of what Restorative Justice is.

An obvious issue is Reed’s contention that:

“forcing youths guilty of relatively minor offences to meet their victims and proscribing punishments that relate directly to their crimes makes sense”

It is clear that on a surface level the use of youth juries is still aimed at applying punishment, albeit in a way that allows a greater understanding of and interaction with those being punished, and so could be argued not to fit strictly into a restorative framework. Two features which are discussed in the other reports cited – the inclusion of the victim and the fact that young people seen to be at risk are offered the opportunity for involvement, are omitted from Reeds commentary. Both could be argued to be strong points of this scheme.

Inclusion of the victim is key theme in restorative practices. The idea that a crime is not a wrong against the state, but a conflict between two parties (Christie 1977) is central to a restorative framework. Though it must be noted that the victim may well not be fully involved in process under discussion so there is therefore still a power imbalance where a third party is ultimately making the decisions, the presence and involvement of the victim is an improvement of traditional procedures.

The second point is that this procedure has benefits for people other than just the victim and offender. Again, this is something fitting into a wider interpretation of Restorative Justice, but is certainly something that cannot be ignored. Whilst many “reparations” offered as “Restorative Justice”, at least those offered by other media reports, can be clearly seen to benefit a wider community these in effect are perhaps little more than community sentencing, or punishment, under a different name. Whether the children involved as jurors in the Peer Panels are those at risk of offending, or those of the stable backgrounds that Reed assumes, it is likely that their involvement will be a positive experience for them.

Lets see eh? Maybe, just maybe as a part of giving kids a bit more power, this may just help.

Cited:

Christie, N (1977) Conflicts as Property. British Journal of Criminology 17, 1: 1-15

 

Featherstone, B (2004) Family Life and Family Support: A feminist analysis. Basingstoke: Palgrave

 

Howitt, D. (1998) Crime Media and The Law. Chichester: Wiley.

Marshall, T. F. (1998) Restorative justive: an overview. Extract from G. Johnstone (ed.) (2003) A Restorative Justice Reader. Cullompton: Willan.

 

Valentine G (1996) “Oh yes I can.” “Oh no you can’t”: Children and Parents understandings of Kids’ competence to negotiate public space safely. Antipode 29, 1, 65-89

Wyness, M (2006) Childhood and Society- An introduction to the Sociology of Childhood. Bastingstoke: Palgrave.

Dis-able me?

Many of you will know, ‘cos I sure as hell have winged about it enough, about the general fucked up state of my neurophysiology at the moment… Somewhere, likely L5 or S1, though maybe in many places one or more of the Sciatic nerve roots has got… …well, a little squished. Sciatica is something I have actually experienced at various times, usually to the level of a bit of pain in the hip and the buttock. This however has been a new level… it started off as before, then moved down into my Tibia and Calf muscles. One day my hip gave way. I tried to walk to town (a journey of perhaps 20 minutes at my normal speed) which took 45 minutes with the need to stop 6 times. It got to the point where after a 20 minute painful walk to work (7 minutes normally, I’ve timed it when late) I collapsed. Pins and needles in my toes, peripheral neuritis all up my left leg. Signed off work, which is a bugger for my colleagues and for my career. Then over Christmas it got to the extent of waking up in tears one night and (having used my full days dose of pain releif) needing to be collected and taken to the emergency surgery and sedated with Diazepam.

Now, I will never complain about being given Valium, these days who would, and and it just about served it’s purpose to relax my muscles and get me a bit of sleep. But when it gets to this, I have come to the conclusion that to all extents and purposes, I am disabled.

And that is what I would like to explore.

However, at this point I must take a break. One way in which I am disabled, is that there is a limit to how long I can comfortably sit at a keyboard. So am am saving this (after about 15 minutes of writing) to allow me to stretch, then take a rest.

Having done so, I will now give some World Health Organisation definitions.

I suffer (though one is discouraged to use the word “suffer” as it is negative, though at times I fucking well suffer) from an impairment – the functioning of my spine and sciatic nerve is impaired. That, it seems, apart from the fact that if I want to say I suffer, then the PC brigade can frankly, get stuffed.

I have a disability, (or rather as “having” it, apparently focusses the problem on me – more on this later folks), I am dis-abled. I am at a disadvantage, or less able due to my impairment.

Of course one is no longer supposed to use the final one of these three – handicapped – defined as a disadvantage compared to others. This word I agree has become overused in a very unpleasant way, and I will accept that it’s usage is normally offensive, though I will just ponder how one can be at a disadvantage (remember that is what disabled is) without being disadvantaged in comparison to someone else..?

With that in mind I shall return to the idea of my disability. The WHO definitions are argued to be based on a medical model. That is that the problem lies within the individual. Well, I have to say, I am not sure exactly who else’s spine the crushed nerves lie in? It ain’t my mother, my boss, the scrawny cat that stares out of the window over the road. I have discussed in the past the medicalisation of a number or normal things, but I’d have to say this definition fits…

Less so I guess the part of this model that hints that a disabled person should be grateful for medical or social help, if only ‘cos it’s actually pretty shite. I mean I went to the doctor with this in April. It was June before I was referred for physiotherapy. It took until autumn for this help, and I’m now on another waiting list for a cortisone injection. I am seeking now to claim DLA. I don’t hold out much hope, even the paltry £16 or so lower rate mobility (less than I’d need to spend a week on taxis if I was to try and return to work) it seems you kind of need to be unable to hobble more than 100 yards. Medical as this definition may be, and correct in the situating of my impairment in my back it does show that even in one of the richer countries in the world, the average person is worth shit.

The is then a kind of rehabilitative model of disability. This attempts to restore status and dignity to the disabled person, helping them to fit in and adjust to their difference. Aside from the intrinsic power relations of the patient and profession (shared with the medical model above, and yes I’m gonna briefly sound like a Trot there) I am in two minds about whether I love this, or feel it is the biggest pile of wank.

I guess my feelings on this are as follows: If I choose to restore my dignity I’d prefer to do it with the least professional interference (barring perhaps one slight episode in hospital a few years ago involving swearing at a nurse who asked the question “why do you need your trousers on when you can’t get out of bed” – I made her put them on for me), other than that, or maybe the example is a good example of this, if my disability makes me so choose, I’ll be as undignified as I bloody well like! And as I’ve discussed above, the help ain’t often up to much!

So now we have the biggie… The Social Model. Now, as with many of my ‘blogs, I’m no expert on disability studies, and some people may want me hung drawn and quartered for this, but I’m gonna say this one in some ways does concern me the most.

Effectively (in its more militant form) this says that the problem is society’s lack of adaptations for my needs. Remember – in am “dis-abled.” This is true. I am dis-abled from working, because I cannot get up the hill on Royal Park road, because I cannot be in one day and off sick the next. This is no one’s fault, though maybe the afore mentioned DLA would help. I am dis-abled from leading a life not battered out of my head on painkillers half the time (and thank Christ the amitriptyline hasn’t made my dick floppy yet!). I am dis-abled by the fact I spent most of the day e-mailing, photocopying, hobbling back and forth between chemist and post box to sort out sicknotes, extensions, prescription charge refunds. This is the fault of the people trying to enact this rehabilitative model. OK these are societies fault. The fact I am dis-abled from going out dancing lies purely in the medical model, it’s the fact I can’t walk properly.

I’m gonna get all anarchist again here in a bit. But an interesting synthesis and discussion of some of these models was something I saw once on TV – someone who was profoundly deaf arguing that he was not disabled, but in fact a member of a linguistic minority. The question was raised then: should he get disability benefits. Does the elderly mother of the local shopkeeper who speaks only Urdu get DLA?

The point is that half the people who argue this still subscribe to the capitalist existence that creates it. If we had a case of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (and yes I know that is Marx, but it does NOT need to be communism) all these arguments would not be needed. We wouldn’t need to worry about reasonable adaptations, sick roles and blah blah blah. My feelings are that really any model of disability fails. You are dis-abled, have a disability, are handicapped, whatever, life is shit.

So go with being as undignified as you like!

But even this might be hard. I have a stick, but it has to be said I still feel averse to using it ‘cos it makes me look like the local skaghead (and for anyone offended by that term, you didn’t suffer the abuse I got from him for not going back into the co-op with all my shopping to buy him jaffa-cakes).

And as for the sick role. Currently it’s the medical profession preventing me from my social obligation to get out of it. And there’s the issue of how I live when I am out of work. Am I entitled to avoid going stir crazy by going out when I’m signed off sick. I know I’ll probably suffer for a week after. Or what if I’m not signed off, but know that a night dancing might mean I subsequently need to be. What if I end up on incapacity, but then do choose to spend a night on the town when I’m getting benefits for not working…

I guess the social model works. But the others are needed… at the end of the day however no amount of pontification is gonna make a disabled person more valued, as it won’t for a street kid, or an asylum seeker.

So, having had a good moan, I’m just gonna accept my lot and get the fuck on with my life!